Learn Black And White Photography

Dan Eitreim

June 17, 2015

The reason most good high school and collegiate beginner’s photography courses teach black and white photography first is because it forces us to think about what elements of a scene will make a striking photograph.

Black and white photograph of a puppy

This is an important lesson in beginner’s photography and should not be overlooked. If you don’t want to take a formalized course in photography for beginners, that’s OK. There are MANY good photography books for beginners that will cover how to learn black and white photography and this website will also extensively cover it! Just keep checking the “Learn Black and White Photography” category in the side bar. There will eventually be hundreds of articles and videos.

While the gorgeous colors of a sunset can often take our breath away, it is the various lines curves and shapes that will lead our eye into and through a photograph.

Photography is not a static and segmented art form. If you learn something in one area, it will improve your work in ALL of the photo genres. In other words, once you have these basic compositional elements mastered, you will not only be able to create a stunning black and white photo, but your color photography will improve as well.

Black and white photograph of a torso

If well done, a black and white photograph will feel almost alive and can absolutely take your breath away!

Another reason that learning black and white photography first was because of the darkroom. Learning to develop your film rolls was only the first step in the creative process. Next came the need to print the negatives onto photo sensitive papers.

Printing color negatives was almost a mechanical thing. There wasn’t a whole lot that you would normally want to do to change the image. If the color was right – it was right. That’s why the printing machines were/are so effective and why 1 hour photo labs popped up on every street corner. Basically ALL the photos are printed on the same paper with the same basic settings.

But black and white is different. You aren’t usually going for a pretty scene. You are generally trying to say something or to invoke some sort of emotion in your viewer. A big part of that was accomplished by the type of paper you printed the negative onto.

Flowing water - Black and white photo

There were/are dozens of different types of paper you could print your negative onto and each one of them gave the photo a whole different look and feel!

So, again…Black and white photography was historically taught first because it forced you to consider composition and then to consider the various emotions and artistic effects that would be created with the various types of paper.

A photo artist that is widely considered to be one of the greatest of all time is Ansel Adams. Everyone thinks he is this amazing photographer, but I have a different take on his work.

Don’t get me wrong, he was a very good shooter. He had the patience to drive hundreds of miles trying to locate a good scene, then he would set up his gear and often waited hours and hours for just the right cloud formations, etc. So I’m not knocking his work at all… but, his true genius was in the darkroom.

Due to changing light conditions, moving clouds and so on, he often had to work very quickly and didn’t have the time to set up like he would have wanted. So, because they had to be rushed, many of his most famous images had negatives that were almost unprintable.

Ansel Adams

In the darkroom he would laboriously work out all the printing details for each section of the photo. i.e. the clouds were exposed for half a second, a certain tree for 2 seconds, a part of the ground for 1 second.

As he worked out all these details, he recorded them in a notebook. Finally, he had a notebook for each of his photos and technically, if someone were to precisely follow the instructions, they too could create a great print from his negatives.

But it didn’t stop there! Even though he had all these notebooks, if a print wasn’t exactly perfect, he tore it up and started over. He often destroyed dozens of prints for each one he kept!

Good news!

Now that film has pretty much gone by the wayside and we are working in a digital format, we can use our photo editing software to create the effects we want – before – the image is printed!

Artistic photos are within YOUR reach! (Without investing thousands of dollars in a darkroom, film developing chemicals, printing papers, lights and so on!)


Black and white photo of a boat

Back to recognizing a great composition when you are trying to learn black and white photography…

What you may consider to be a great black and white photo subject may be totally different from what I may choose, but there are some elements that most photographers will look for.

  1. If you have a subject that is limited in colors. If the scene is mostly mono-chromatic, like a cliff face or a city skyline. Adams’ “Moon and Half Dome.” Comes to mind.
  2. If the elements of a photo are conveying a very strong emotion, colors can often be distracting. I once shot a candid photo of a homeless man sitting on a bench at the beach. He was slumped forward and had his hands together. (It almost looked like he was praying. – Perhaps he was.) With the bright blue of the sky and the foamy green of the waves, all the emotion was lost. After it was printed in black and white, the portrait became so powerful that it often brought tears to the eyes of its viewers.
  3. Low contrast images like those shot on overcast, dreary days – or smoke filled jazz clubs.

Look for great shapes, shadows, and so on…

Black and whites photo of a staircase

Here are two fun projects that will help you learn to recognize when a scene would make a great black and white image.

First, go online and do some research. Look up some of the great black and white photos. Don’t just take a look and think that’s pretty… actually study the photo and try to determine why it works as a black and white shot!

Why did the photographer choose black and white? (Maybe it was done before color film was even invented.) Would it have been better in color? Why? And Why not?

Next – with EVERY photo you shoot for the next few weeks, open them up in your photo editor in both color and black and white. Which one looks best? On the black and white one, how could it have been improved? Do this a few dozen times and you will soon start to recognize a good scene for black and white!

Black and white photo of arches

This may take only a few hours, or it could take weeks, depending on your eye for black and white, but once you have it, it will be with you for life.

Play around with the different effects available in your editor and you will start to rival the best shooters out there AND will start winning photo contests!

To learn more about a great online class, check out – Photography Master Class

For a bit of fun check out – Trick Photography

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